Preaching in the smartphone age can have its challenges. As advancements in technology, communications and instant connectivity continue, preachers will need to counter such distractions to relay the gospel message effectively. In light of diminished attention spans and the reality of the presence of smartphones in our sanctuaries, I would like to share seven practical strategies that preachers can utilize to maximize the effectiveness of their sermons in the smartphone age.
This article is republished from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
These strategies are derived from the success of the popular TED Talks organization and other well known sources of homiletical wisdom referenced below. They are intended to help preachers think of the attention of their audience when writing and delivering their sermons. Let’s begin!
Strategy #1: Start Strong.
In Preaching That Connects , Mark Galli and Craig Brian Larson offer this advice regarding the opening sentences of a sermon:
“The opening sentence of a sermon is an opportunity. It’s not crucial that we craft it
perfectly — even the most apathetic will bear with us at least two or three sentences
before turning us off. Still, it’s a shame if we waste the moment when listeners are giving
us their highest attention. If we do this sentence well, we won’t still be working for
people’s attention when we are well into the sermon.” 1
Preachers must capitalize on their opening sentences, and use them well.
The opening statements set the tone for the rest of the sermon and it is at this time that most of your listeners will determine whether they are in with you for the long haul or not.
Remember, if listeners are not engaged from the very beginning, they have a device in their pockets or their purses that can give them access to literally anything else that could entertain them for the next 30 minutes. Sermon introductions set the tone for the rest of the message. They must raise curiosity, demand complete attention and provide a hook that will lure listeners in for more.
Strategy #2: Use Visuals.
The use of visual aids can give preachers a powerful tool to transform their sermons into three-dimensional messages for their listeners. When preachers introduce some sort of visual aid in the form of a prop, a photograph or a short video clip, they are actively drawing the attention of their listeners away from other distractions.
Implement visuals to reel in the members of your audience who learn better visually.
In his book, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church , Gregg Allison correctly noted that preaching has become problematic due the rising reliance of visual communication as opposed to the auditory learning style promoted by preaching. 2
Of course, visual aids should be used sparingly and for maximum effectiveness. These tools have the potential to stick in the memories of your audience’s visual learners.
Strategy #3: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.
Another powerful weapon in the armory of a skilled homilitician is the use of repetition during a sermon. Even distracted listeners can pick up on a sermon’s main points if the key words, phrases and ideas are repeated often by the preacher during the delivery.
Repetition provides the mental reinforcements that the brain needs to piece together the information being presented during a sermon.
In How Effective Sermons Advance , Ben Awbrey writes that through the use of repetition, sermons gain greater unity, which enhances the cognitive understanding of the sermon and text in the minds of the hearers. 3
Strategy #4: Make a Note to NOT Use Notes.
TED encourages its speakers to give their presentations without notes so that they can better engage their listeners. 4 This allows speakers to have proper eye contact with their listeners and better use non-verbal gestures to retain attention.
If preachers desire for their listeners to not be glued to their smartphones during a message, they must not be glued to the notes in their pulpits.
Preachers must not lose their audiences’ attention by referring back to their notes multiple times throughout a sermon.
Strategy #5: Strong Sermon Structuring.
Effective sermons that engage and command the attention of listeners are structured well. Whether your sermon is arranged deductively or inductively, it is important that listeners can follow the trajectory that you are walking them through.
Arrange your sermon in an organized manner that clearly outlines various points that are memorable and easy to understand.
Doing this will allow you to keep their attention throughout the message and make them want to hear more. Transitions also play a large role in this strategy. In Biblical Preaching , Haddon Robinson wrote that transitions serve as road signs to point out where the sermon has been and where it is going,next. 5
Skilled preachers can provide carefully crafted verbal transitions to guide the audience through the various points of your message. By doing this, you can help your listeners follow along with you well so that they are not tempted to pull their attention away from the sermon.
Strategy #6: Timing is Everything.
As a child, one of the table topics of Sunday lunches after church was our pastor’s sermon length in minutes. My father consistently checked his watch when our pastor would begin his sermons, announce his conclusions and when he actually concluded his message. To this day, my mind thinks about those who might be in my audience doing the same thing.
There is no set standard for a sermon’s length, but it should be closely considered in the age of smartphones.
TED mandates that their speakers have an allowed time limit of 18 minutes for their talks. Here is how Chris Anderson, TED’s curator explained his organization’s thinking on the issue in terms of public speaking and timing:
“It [18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention..
By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18,
you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to
communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.” 6
Preachers should consider this logic when writing their sermons. I’m not suggesting that all sermons should be contained to an 18-minute timeframe, but that they should consider being more concise when preaching.
What elements are the most important in the sermon? This question can be helpful to ask when considering the limited attention spans of your listeners.
The more “fluff” your sermon has, the more prone your listeners will be to turn their attention to their smartphones.
Strategy #7: End Strong.
The final strategy fittingly focuses on the conclusion of a sermon. As a preaching student in seminary, I remember being shocked by my professor’s instruction to always begin writing sermons with the conclusion.
Effective communicators must begin their sermon writing process with the conclusion in mind.
This will allow the structure of the sermon to point towards a climatic ending that could stick in the minds of even the most distracted listeners. If you have been successful in keeping the attention of your audience away from their smartphones for the duration of the sermon, you don’t want to lose them by failing to end without a strong pay off.
Haddon Robinson famously asked his preaching students, “What can your people do to carry out the truth of Sunday morning’s sermon in Monday morning’s world?” 7
A strong conclusion will answer that question for your listeners by summarizing the message and doing it in such a way that it remains in their minds.
Research will continue to trace the mental effects of smartphone use as time progresses and preachers should remain aware of this. Smartphones will keep getting smarter and so homileticians must adapt to meet the needs of a constantly changing reality.
By utilizing strategies such as those listed above, preachers can actively engage their audiences well before they engage their devices and gain the upper hand in the “attention war.”
1 Mark Galli and Craig Brian Larson, Preaching That Connects (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 37.
2 Gregg R. Allison. Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 436.
3 Ben Awbrey, How Effective Sermons Advance (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 186.
4 Anderson, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, 143.
5 Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 138.
6 Carmine Gallo, The Science Behind TED’s 18-Minute Rule. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140313205730-5711504-the-science-behind-ted-s-18-minute-rule/ (accessed on Aug. 14, 2018).
7 Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 130.
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